Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Emor 5763 /May 10, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Emor 5763 /May 10, 2003
The Sabbath and the Holy Days
Rabbi Dr. Schubert Spero

(1) The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: (2) Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions. (3) On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. You shall do no work; it shall be a sabbath of the Lord throughout your settlements. (4) These are the set times of the Lord, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time" (Lev. 23:1-4)

Rashi asks (v. 3):

What has the Sabbath to do with the festivals? It is to teach us that whoever profanes the fixed times is considered as if he has profaned the sabbaths, and whoever observes the fixed times, is considered as if he has observed the sabbaths.

Were it not for the repetition in verse 4 of the words, "These are the set times (mo'adei) of the Lord," one might argue that the statement, "these are ... the fixed times (mo'adei) of the Lord," in verse 2 refers to the Sabbath, mentioned in the next verse, as Ibn Ezra and Hizkuni interpreted. After all, the term mo'ed, denotes a specific place (the Tent of Meeting, Ohel Mo'ed), or a specific time, as in the phrase, "I will return to you at the time (la-mo'ed)next year" (Gen. 18:14). Hence the term mo'ed can pertain to the Sabbath, like its companion term, "sacred occasions," miqra'e qodesh, which according to Nahmanides on these verses means a day on which "every one is called to gather together to sanctify it, for Israel are commanded to gather together in the House of the Lord on the days of mo'ed, to sanctify the day publicly through prayer, praising the Lord, wearing clean garments and making it a day of feasting."

In its narrow meaning, however, the word mo'ed refers only to specific days associated with a particular nature and customs which repeat in a yearly cycle, and hence the Sabbath and New Moon do not merit this name. There are only seven days in the year that can be called mo'ed: the first and seventh days of Passover, the Feast of First Fruits, the Day of Atonement, the Day of Remembrance (Rosh ha-Shanah), and the first and eighth days of Tabernacles. The prominent features of the Sabbath that set it apart from the days of mo'ed are:

  1. The sanctity of the Sabbath has been fixed and existed since time immemorial, having been sanctified by the Lord himself, whereas the sanctity of the mo'adim stems from the sanctity of Israel, since the day of the mo'ed depends on the number of days in the month, which in turn depends on the Bet Din (court) determining the New Moon (as set forth in Tractate Pesahim 107).
  2. As for the prohibition against work, with respect to the Sabbath it is written, "You shall do no work" (Lev. 23:3), whereas on the days of mo'ed it is forbidden to "work at your occupations" (v. 7) and therefore work necessary for preparing food is permitted (as explained in Pesahim 68b).

That being the case, it is problematic why, after declaring its intention to detail the days of mo'ed, the Torah should pause to mention the commandment of the Sabbath, which is not included in the term mo'ed, and as a result of this pause have to repeat the sentence, "these are the set times of the Lord."

There are two possibilities to explain the semikhut parshiot or juxtaposition of two concepts that at first glance appear similar but in actual fact are so very different. One way is to reinforce the weaker concept by comparing it to the stronger one to which it is attached. The other possibility is not to compare but to differentiate: to stress the uniqueness of the stronger, so that it not become blurred and narrowed by the tendency to equate it with the weaker concept. Rashi favored the first option, writing: "To teach you that whoever profanes the days of moed is considered as if he had profaned the Sabbath," whereas Nahmanides chose the second option: "The first statement was to command the days of mo'ed, except that the Sabbath was mentioned to indicate that it does not follow the laws of the mo'ed; when the Sabbath falls on a mo'ed the laws of the Sabbath are not superceded so as to permit preparation of food." In other words, when a holiday falls on the Sabbath one should not make the mistake of thinking that the permission to prepare food on the holiday overrules the proscription against "any work" on the Sabbath.

I would like to suggest another explanation for mentioning the Sabbath in this context of the days of mo'ed. Following Nahmanides, I believe the comparison is intended to reinforce the importance of the Sabbath beyond the holidays by giving preference to the Sabbath. This preference finds expression in mentioning the Sabbath before the holidays, as is the case in other sources as well (Ex. 23:12, Num. 28:9; but also cf. Ex. 34:21, as well as Nahmanides and Sforno on the latter verse).

The juxtaposition brings out the radical difference between the Sabbath and the holidays in terms of the general orientation of each, and also in terms of the relationship of the one to the other. The holidays have their origins in the history of the Israelite people and are directed at the Jewish community; the Sabbath, in contrast, has its origins in the mysteries of the universe and is directed at all of mankind. Therefore, in a certain sense one could say that the Sabbath is the ultimate objective of the holidays.

My Rabbi and mentor, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz (the spiritual mentor of yeshiva Torah va-Da'at in New York) used to explain this metaphorically: The function of the days of mo'ed is to train and educate the individual to be a Jew, by the correspondence between historical experience and consciousness of G-d that finds expression in the days of mo'ed. These holidays make clear to us G-d's role in the history of the nation (Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and Tabernacles); the connection between the individual and his Maker (Rosh ha-Shanah, the Day of Atonement), and the place of Divine Providence in the ecological life of the soil (spring, harvest time, and ingathering of the fruits). As a responsible partner to the Covenant and a member of the house of Israel, by observing the days of mo'ed the individual "finishes his studies and receives his degree." Then he begins his most professional work, namely observing the Sabbath.

The proscription against doing any work on the Sabbath is not simply a stricter version of the proscription against "work at your occupations" on the days of mo'ed; rather, these commandments differ in their essence. Maimonides wrote that abstaining from work on the seventh day is an affirmative commandment, since it is written "and on the seventh day you shall cease from labor" (Hilkhot Shabbat 1.1). As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, "The Sabbath is not about forbidding us to do work, but an affirmative commandment that we cease from work ... the main thing being to declare the Sabbath as testimony, 'a sign for all times'" (Ha-Adam ve-Olamo, 244-245). The basic obligation that the people of Israel took upon themselves as a nation "in all your dwelling-places," as part of their covenant with G-d, is to attest by total devotion to the Sabbath rest, even under the most difficult circumstances, that the One Lord, G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who commanded us the Torah, is the Creator and Ruler of the universe (who made heaven and earth). Rashi interpreted the verse, "Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My Sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know (la-da'at) that I the Lord have consecrated you" (Ex. 31:13) as follows: "la-da'at - [not "that you may know" but] that the nations of the world may know through it [the Sabbath]." The word le-olam, in the verse, "it shall be a sign for all time (le-olam) between Me and the people of Israel" (v. 17), according to Rashi, can be rendered as "for all inhabitants of the Earth." Israel is to keep the Sabbath as a sign between G-d and Israel, and thereby the nations of the world will come to acknowledge G-d's actions in nature.

Once we recognize the fundamental difference between the Sabbath and the days of mo'ed, we are in a better position to understand several of the unusual characteristics of the Sabbath:

  1. The Sabbath is the only ritual that is included in the Ten Commandments, since it is one of the basic objectives of the Covenant.
  2. Due to its great importance, the punishment for violating the Sabbath is so strict: "He who profanes it shall be put to death" (Ex. 31:14). Because the Sabbath is a sign of the Covenant and is to be testimony to the rest of the world, violating it publicly is considered an extremely serious sin.
  3. Even though there is no historical connection between the people of Israel and the Sabbath, in any event "Sabbath rest" was given to Israel as a pleasure, not only an obligation. The Sages call the Sabbath a "fine gift," given to Israel as an expression of G-d's love for His people. This is the reason the word be-ahava, "lovingly," is added to the prayers recited on the Sabbath.

What has the Sabbath to do with the days of mo'ed? It is to remind us that all the holidays, with all their symbolic richness and the great impact they have on our life, are only a preparatory step for making Israel worthy witnesses: when they keep the Sabbath, they bear witness that G-d, who is One, made heaven and earth.